Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

By JOE FALCONER

Whether a call is for a fire, a hazmat spill, or a public gathering, emergency data is at the top of the list for mitigating collateral damage and casualties. Understanding the landscape, the heat sources, and the locations of the fire and the people on the ground will add to better situational awareness and provide quality information to make more efficient and safer decisions.

A real-time aerial view using thermal imaging; visual light; red, green, blue (RGB) sensors; and a video transmission to multiple ground stations may provide that extra data you need to make better decisions. Lightweight, portable, easily deployed aerial technology could help firefighters in the field determine fire location, movement, and size. When communications break down, this could be the best information incident commanders (ICs) have to make informed decisions on where to go to stay safe. An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that transmits a RGB and thermal infrared (TIR) imaging video signal real-time to the ground could provide the “eye in the sky” advantage that hasn’t been available until now.

Aerial Data Systems
(1) Photo courtesy of Aerial Data Systems.
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The advancement of technology in recent years has been astounding. The advent of new, cheaper, and lighter sensors, batteries, raw materials, and electronics makes it possible to apply technology in ways that were not possible in the past. UAVs can potentially help solve issues and provide more efficient data gathering when you need it most. With the ability to fly autonomously from a few feet off the ground to thousands of feet in the air, these resourceful tools provide data to the IC that was previously unavailable. Real-time TIR imaging can identify hot spots not visible in the RGB spectrum. This information may help stop fires from restarting and ensure a more thorough control of the fire.

Short wave infrared (SWIR) allows the capability of “seeing through” smoke to the point of identifying the source and intensity of the fire. Near infrared (NIR) enables the identifying of moisture content in plant life and RGB, which can provide valuable intelligence and situational awareness in an emergency.

These flight platforms can be flown easily into areas where humans should not go. For a hazmat spill, this is invaluable for collecting data on the downwind side of a gas plume. With a low volume of air moving through the rotors, these machines may gather pertinent image data with low impact. By carrying TIR, NIR, RGB, SWIR, and other sensors, this technology can gather crucial incident information in ways that are easy, timely, transportable, and safe.

Technology is advancing at a rapid pace; in the next few years, we will see solutions to old problems that will stretch the imagination. Like the Internet in the early 1990s, we have only begun to understand the potential of these machines.

Imagine a 3-D, full-wrap goggle that places you in a virtual world; when you move your head, the image moves real time. Now imagine using this technology to analyze an accident scene from above with the suite of sensors available. Particle sensors that can detect particulates in the air such as ozone, chlorine, and hydrofluorocarbons are now being used. This technology can provide better information postaccident and for deciding when it is safe for the general public to return to a cleaned-up accident scene.

With technological advancements come responsibilities, and the use of UAVs in the National Airspace System is apparent. Many pilots are concerned about UAVs sharing the skies with full-sized aircraft. It can be hard for them to see other aircraft, especially if the UAV is flying in a busy training corridor. There are several examples of careless acts regarding accidents with these flying machines, but most pilots are responsible and empathetic to the observer’s perceptions.

We know the technology may be used for the betterment of our communities. The uses are almost limitless, and the best ideas most likely have yet to be devised.

Aerial Data Systems specializes in small unmanned aircraft systems training, products, and consulting. Its instructor pilots are Federal Aviation Authority-certified.

JOE FALCONER, MBA, CFI, CFII, MEI, is an adjunct professor at the University of Denver and chief operating officer of Aerial Data Systems.

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